The Music of Winter
Myth #1 – ‘Sleigh’ bells are only used with sleighs in winter.
Myth #2 – They are mostly decorative and festive.
When carriage drivers think of bells, they often visualize the Currier and Ives prints of fast trotting horses gliding along hard-packed snow with strings of bells around their girths. In fact, bells were used on horses – and many other animals – dating back hundreds of years B.C. Today bells are frequently referred to as ‘sleigh bells,’ but a more accurate term would be ‘horse bells.’ Bells are used for communication and safety; they are not just there to make a pretty sound.
“Horse bells attracted good luck; protected against disease, injury and evil, flaunted the owner's wealth and status, and enhanced the horse's natural beauty,” according to Charles Kelly and DeeAnna Weed, the owners of Classic Bells, in Postville, Iowa. They turned a quest for bells for their Fjord horses into a business.
Today’s bells are made of metal, but thousands of years ago, bells were made from things like turtle shells, wood, bamboo – anything that would make a sound. Different bells were used for different purposes.
Barry Dickinson has been collecting horse bells for well over half a century and has become an authority on their history and use. He explains that bells aren’t exclusively used on horses, “they used bells on cattle in the Swiss Alps,” Barry explains, “they were used to tell the herders where the cattle were.” Another example is “the bell mare in Argentina, to let the youngsters she’s raising know where their substitute mother is by the sound of that bell.”
According to Barry, in some cases, the law required bells to be used on horses. “Hansom cabs in the cities wore bells because they went a little faster than the others and it let you and your horse know where they were.The horses, of course, are trotting on. When the bells are behind you, you hear them, when they've gone past you, you don’t hear them.”
When driving a sleigh, bells are essential – especially at night in the dark. “At night,” Barry explains, “there were no lamps on sleighs, and of course sleighs don’t make a sound on the snow, so the only way to hear what is coming or where another horse and sleigh is, is with bells. They would tell others where you were, how close and how to avoid them. That’s why it was a law to use them. It is a law in Quebec – you must have six bells on a sleigh.”
In the north, pedestrians bundled up in the winter with heavy wool and fur coats, scarves and big fur hats that covered their ears. All this clothing made it even harder to hear a sleigh coming down the road. Bells were essential for safety in the winter.
Barry finds humor in many things. “When young horses would come in from the country and weren’t used to the sound of bells they would go a little crazy and would take off, spreading people down the street and into snow banks.” A popular prank was to put a bell under the bed of newlyweds, and embarrass them as they consummated their marriage.
Bells of various sizes sewn onto a strap of leather are one of the most common type of sleigh bells seen today. The string of bells goes around the girth. “They come in many, many patterns, styles, and shapes. Each company had several styles, such as raspberry, acorn, or buckeye. Many were round with a flower pattern on them. Little round bells with crisscrosses on top are called crotal bells. The ‘pie’ cut on top with little circle ringer inside was cast right in the clay. The sand was then shaken out with the ringer left in,” Barry explains.
The open face bell doesn’t go around the girth because of its weight but goes on the shafts or the pole or the back pad.
The quality of a set of bells is judged by the bells’ resonance. “Bells whose sound resonates for a long time are good bells,” Barry explains. If the sound ends with a thud – that is an indication of inferior metal. Cold, frigid weather makes the bells sound better. “When the metal gets really cold, and the clangers are hitting inside, the sound is incredible!”
Copper, brass and antimony are a mixture for making bells that creates a good sound.
East Hampton, Connecticut, was home to several important bell manufacturers in the 1800s, and earned the nick-name “Belltown” or “Jingletown.” They used metal filings left over from watch factories, according to Barry. By the end of the century, one of the East Hampton bell makers was stamping sleigh bells out of sheet metal, allowing a huge increase in production numbers. East Hampton provided 90% of the world’s sleigh bells.
The Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company in East Hampton is still manufacturing bells today. Started in 1832, six generations of Bevins have been involved with running the company. According to the Bevin Brothers website, “William Bevin learned the art of bell making while working as an indentured servant to William Barton when Barton lived and worked in Cairo, New York.” After fulfilling the terms of his indenture, William returned to East Hampton and with his brother Chauncey, continued to make bells. They were soon joined by their brother Abner and eventually Philo, and formed the Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company.
The bell-making business stayed strong through the civil war. They made bells for sleighs, hand bells, house, cow, sheep, door and ship's bells. In 2012 the Bevin's 19th-century factory burned to the ground. With much help from friends and community, Bevin Brothers resumed production and now look forward to their 200th anniversary in 2032.
The different sounds that bells make is important to their purpose – to distinguish one turnout from another. “If all the bells sounded the same, you couldn’t differentiate from your own horses’ bells. You needed to be able to hear where the other horses were so they wouldn’t run into each other.”
If you choose to become a collector of horse bells, Barry suggests choosing bells that have a sound that you like “and can stand to listen to them for a long, long time.” As each bell in a set has a different sound, it is important that they be harmonious. Listening to just one bell could soon drive you crazy. Barry says one of the problems today, as a collector, is that the sets have been broken up.
Horses and ponies become accustomed to the sound of bells quite quickly. Getting them used to wearing them and to the sound by long-lining them in an enclosed area is a good idea. If you put the bells on your horse or carriage when driving with others, consider the fact that other horses may not like the sound of bells coming at them from behind.
Bells can be attached to stirrups when riding as well. Using bells during deer hunting season can be useful to allow hunters to distinguish horses from the deer.
Barry has been collecting bells for decades and has some that belonged to his grandfather. Growing up in Roland, Manitoba, he remembers that winter was a very active time. Farming kept everyone busy in the spring, summer and fall, but in the winter people had time to visit and socialize. He says that people took their bells with them when they moved into town from the country. “Bells were your identity. You could tell where the Scotts and Glovers [neighbors] were by the sound of their bells.” Bells were passed down the generations.
In the horse-drawn era, there were no street lights in the country, no paved roads with light reflecting lines, no electric lights in the windows. It was dark. It is hard today to completely understand just how dark it was, and therefore how dangerous it was to drive at night without bells.
Barry’s collection includes bells from around the world – Italy, Holland, Denmark, Russia, Ukraine and Argentine. How many does he have? “Too many. And they are very heavy.” Barry only collects bells that have a good sound. “I will go into a place that sells bells and go around shaking them all and only buy one.” New bells don’t have good sound, in his opinion. Bells are still made today, but the metal isn't as good. Some are made in England and Germany.
Many years ago, Mel Awrey, a close friend of Barry’s family in Roland, Manitoba, told Barry that when they purchased a driving horse, it was always in the spring. It had to know all the family's meanderings – the way to school, to town, church – it had to know the roads, so when winter came, and it could not see because of blizzards and whiteouts, it would know where the roads were. It’s an instinct that horses have, keeping them out of the ditches and barbed-wire fences that would be hidden under feet of snow, making the road bed hard to see. People didn’t trade off their driving horses, they kept them as long as possible because they knew the roads, and could find their way in the dark.
To find bells, look on Internet sites such as Ebay. Martin’s auctions usually have a good selection, plus you have the opportunity to compare and listen to their sound. Classic Bells has a great website full of useful information such as how to detect bells misrepresented as antique, and how to care for bells and straps.
Barry is also an authority in turnout and carriage history. He worked for many years with the late Cynthia Hayden, one of the most influential women in coaching and hackneys, as well as other notable drivers and coaching enthusiasts. He currently lives in Blythewood, South Carolina.